Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars

Eric Clapton’s cold-blooded blues playing has never been my thing – technically impressive, he’s never had the soul for me. He’s always looked distant and disengaged, bored by his own prowess. He doesn’t look like he feels what he’s playing.

This long doc gets as close to his emotions as is probably possible. There’s been pain and tragedy in his personal life that certainly means he’s had the blues. Like when he found out “my sister was really my mother.” 

Yes, the person he called Mum was in fact his Nan, and his real Mum was the person they had pretended was his sister, and she’d gone to live in Canada. Her subsequent rejection of him sparked a lonesomeness and a distrust in people that then makes sense of his blank emotions. “The blues took all the pain away,” he says, of hearing Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy on the wireless.

Clapton sort of narrates the footage, with a dispassionate, unflinching set of responses to what must have been an interviewer’s questions. “It was one man and his guitar against the world,” he says, which sounds great, only Clapton never seems to use it as his sword. 

He becomes grouchy, miserable, purist. Cream, who were pretty good, self-explode and Clapton blames Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, never himself. Then he falls in love with his best mate George Harrison’s wife, Patti Boyd. While she continually rejects him (or keeps him dangling), he descends into drug abuse and alcoholism. As Derek and the Dominoes, he wrote Layla for her, after a tragic Persian love story, and she still didn’t fall into his arms. He becomes a hermit.

Clapton’s drink and drugs story goes on for ages, and he behaves like an absolute dick. He wasn’t even a wild man or a funny man, he was just miserable. Even when Patti finally said Yes, he blows it. The film doesn’t look at the real monster of depression and I think it misses a big trick there. 

After the awful death of his little son Conor who fell out of the window of New York’s Galeria building, you feel you can’t really criticise, and Clapton pulls his life around a bit, if you can call getting Grammys for Unplugged a kind of redemption. His work setting up the Crossroads charity is laudable and he seems vaguely content now, with a wife and children, which is nice for him, although he sounds as boring and grumpy about it as he does about his addictions.

I wish I could say I was happy for him but, after spending 134 minutes in his company, I honestly couldn’t give a monkeys. The film didn’t make me realise he was a great guitarist, didn’t reassess his contribution to British or world music, or to the furthering of the art of the blues, and it didn’t help me understand or care for the man. 

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